Rowell left scarred by mauling in the endless ruck

Click to follow
The Independent Online
This is anything but a season of goodwill for Jack Rowell and, even on comfortably and comfortingly familiar territory watching his once- beloved Bath's epic Pilkington Cup despatch of Northampton, the England manager was looking thoroughly uncomfortable.

Accountability, or its apportionment between players and coaches, is an age-old sporting conundrum and in the aftermath of England's unsatisfactory though scarcely calamitous performance against Western Samoa the balance appears to have swung decisively against Rowell.

It is no exaggeration to say that in some quarters the manager has taken a metaphorical shoeing equivalent to that which, more literally, is known down under as New Zealand rucking methods and which Rowell himself attempted to instil in his England B players when they gave a tackle-bag a memorable going-over in Wanganui in 1992.

He did not succeed then and he is patently not succeeding now, either in the battle to change the way his players play or in the other battle, the public-relations one - which post-Samoa really has been calamitous. The well-appointed press box at the Recreation Ground neatly symbolised the dichotomy between Rowell and his accusers, with the manager one side of the glass in the wireless zone and the writers looking at him askance from the other side.

And ne'er the twain did meet, nor will they if our understanding of Rowell's extreme perturbation is true. All queries about England's training and selection for the French game in Paris on 20 January are referred by Rowell to Colin Herridge, the Rugby Football Union's media man, who then of course has to ask Jack. Which is plain daft.

Anyone who heard Rowell's interview with Ian Payne on Radio Five Live will have realised that here is a man who is struggling to restrain his incandescence. Payne was doubtless glad he was far away at the other end of the line, and there came a point when the producer was anxiously wondering whether Rowell would carry on as agreed to be the second voice during the match commentary.

For the record, Rowell never blamed the media - not in as many words, anyway - for the way England approached the Samoa match; the actual culprit was Will Carling, the captain, who told a television interviewer in the tunnel immediately after the final whistle that "the impression from the media was that we would put 50 points on them".

It would be interesting to know what part of which medium was responsible for this misapprehension though, even if it were so, the responses of both Rowell and Carling indicate that their team are astoundingly suggestible. But it seems to me the erroneous expectation came rather from an ignorant Twickenham crowd - those outside and not inside the press box - and that the poverty of England's performance owed as much to the disruption caused by their own interminable contract negoatiations with the RFU as to the way they tried to play.

Of more pressing concern for Rowell at the Rec - after he had told his radio listeners that the nation and complaisant media needed to get behind his team, that is - was the performance of the leaders of the First Division against the leaders of the Second. That Bath eked out a 12-3 victory through three Jonathan Callard penalties to one by Paul Grayson on a morass of a pitch under leaden skies would tell its own baleful tale if in fact the match had not been a magnificent spectacle fit to cheer even not-so- jolly Jack's heart.

Indeed here were two teams committed to playing the very rugby of which Rowell has spoken so often, and tempering their free-running aspirations with occasional appropriate deference to the demands of the conditions and the occasion. Now, if only England could manage something similar against France . . .

Moreover, this tie was a lesson for the law-makers as well as instructive for the England manager. Even before the new imperative of professionalism there was too much tampering in the interests of "entertainment" and if ever a game showed that "entertainment" does not necessarily consist of an endless series of tries and manufactured movement this was it.

All the talk - of which there is plenty - about removing basic elements of the rugby union game should thus be treated with contempt, because the alternative would be an ersatz concoction of next to no merit. It is time, instead, to declare ourselves unashamedly and wholeheartedly in favour of rucks and mauls, line-outs and scrums.

Northampton's presence in the fifth-round draw next Tuesday will be sadly missed because their intrepid display at Bath, significantly superior to anything achieved by this season's league vistors there, proved them already to be of upper First Division quality. From the actual First Division, Orrell and Sale will also be absent, the North-west's cup challenge having been ended by London in the shape of Harlequins and Wasps respectively.

Winnington Park of the Fifth Division North are the lowliest qualifiers for the last 16. Leeds of the Fourth Division saw off Waterloo of the Second and Coventry of the Third did likewise to Blackheath of the Second. Among those joining them are Newcastle, who can now look forward to having England's most-capped stand-off eligible to play in the fifth round. Better not mention Rob Andrew to big Jack, though.